The Bad Sister (1931)

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Well, baddish . . .
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US / 65 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Hobart Henley Pr: Carl Laemmle Jr Scr: Edwin Knopf, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock Story: The Flirt (1913) by Booth Tarkington Cine: Karl Freund Cast: Conrad Nagel, Sidney Fox, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Winninger, Emma Dunn, ZaSu Pitts, “Slim” Summerville, Bert Roach, David Durand, Helene Chadwick.

This was the third time Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt had been brought to the screen—the precursors had been

  • The Flirt (1916) dir Phillips Smalley, with Lois Weber, Marie Walcamp, Grace Benham and Juan de la Cruz, and
  • The Flirt (1922) dir Hobart Henley (who also directed The Bad Sister), with Eileen Percy, Helen Jerome Eddy and Lloyd Whitlock.

The movie has many great strengths and a few weaknesses, but really The Bad Sister is one of those pieces whose significance goes far beyond the artistic creation itself. Here we have the first screen role for Bette Davis and an early screen role for Humphrey Bogart, and it could so easily have been the last screen role for both. It was also the first screen role for poor Sidney Fox, the Star Who Never Was.

Sidney Fox as Marianne.

In Council City, Ohio, realtor John Madison (Winninger) is respected throughout the community as a man of utmost probity. With his wife (Dunn) he has raised three daughters: Amy (Chadwick), now married to plumber Sam (Summerville), vivacious, “highly strung” Marianne (Fox) and the drabber Laura (Davis). Much younger is son Hedrick (Durand). Rounding out the household is the long-suffering maid, Minnie (Pitts).

Although her parents cannot see this, Marianne is a Continue reading

Merton of the Movies (1947)

US / 82 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Robert Alton Pr: Albert Lewis Scr: George Wells, Lou Breslow Story: Merton of the Movies (1919) by Harry Leon Wilson, and Merton of the Movies (1922 play) by George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly Cine: Paul C. Vogel Cast: Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Gloria Grahame, Leon Ames, Alan Mowbray, Charles D. Brown, Hugo Haas, Harry Hayden, Tom Trout, Douglas Fowley, Dick Wessel, Helen Eby-Rock.

This was the third movie version of Wilson’s novel and the hit Broadway play based on it. The earlier versions were Merton of the Movies (1924) dir James Cruze, with Glenn Hunter, Charles Sellon, Sadie Gordon and Gale Henry, and Make Me a Star (1932) dir William Beaudine, with Joan Blondell, Stuart Erwin, Zasu Pitts, Ben Turpin and Charles Sellon, the latter reprising his role as Pete Gashwiler. There was also a Kraft Theatre version: Merton of the Movies (1947 TVM) with Eddie Mayehoff and Patricia Englund. Cruze’s 1924 silent has been lost, and the same may be true of the TVM.

Merton of the Movies - Gloria Grahame

Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame), having just told the press she does all her own stunts, prepares to let stuntgirl Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) do the dangerous bit.

A satire of the movie business, this has no real noir relevance save for the presence in its cast of noir goddess Gloria Grahame (I’ve been working on a piece about Grahame for something else, which is what brought me to this movie), not to mention actor/producer/director Hugo Haas, whose enjoyably dire shoestring noirs have a minor cult following today. There are also some regular noir supports like Ames and Fowley.

It’s 1915 and Merton Gill (Skelton) is a cinema usher in Tinkerton, Kansas, and mad about the movies; his favorite stars are Lawrence “Larry” Rupert (Ames), famed for his detective roles, and the lovely Beulah Baxter (Grahame), famed for Continue reading

Trial of Vivienne Ware, The (1932)

US / 56 minutes / bw / Fox Dir & Pr: William K. Howard Scr: Philip Klein, Barry Conners Story: The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1931) by Kenneth M. Ellis Cine: Ernest Palmer Cast: Joan Bennett, Donald Cook, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Zasu Pitts, Lilian Bond, Allan Dinehart (i.e., Alan Dinehart), Herbert Mundin, Howard Phillips, William Pawley, Noel Madison, Jameson Thomas, Ruth Selwyn, Christian Rub, Maude Eburne, J. Maurice Sullivan (i.e., John M. Sullivan).

Wealthy NYC socialite Vivienne Ware (Bennett) falls for sleazy architect/builder Damon Fenwick (Thomas) and agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of the lawyer who loves her, John Sutherland (Cook). After it becomes evident that Fenwick is two-timing her with Silver Bowl Café danceuse Dolores Divine (Bond), Vivienne breaks off the engagement. Later that night Fenwick is found murdered; when the cops arrive at Vivienne’s apartment next morning to question her, they find her packing for a trip, disbelieve her explanation that this is the first she’s known of the murder, and arrest her.

Of course, John takes on her defense, even though he himself believes he saw Vivienne taking a cab to Fenwick’s house just before the murder.  In court, the aggressive, permanently irate prosecutor (Dinehart) piles up the incriminating evidence against Vivienne; in fact, she seems even guiltier to us than she does to the court, because we saw her destroying an incriminating diary page (“And if Damon deceives me again I shall not be responsible for the consequences”) just before the cops arrived to tell her of Fenwick’s death. The tide starts to turn when, as Dolores is testifying, a man hurls a knife at her from the rear of the court; eventually arrested, he proves to be Joe Garson (Phillips), cousin of the owner of the Silver Bowl, Angelo Paroni (Madison) . . .

The Trial of Vivienne Ware is a very well told and executed movie, with a clever narrative whereby several integral parts of the story are omitted from the chronological telling of the movie’s first half, only to be filled in later as flashbacks from the court proceedings. This narrational sophistication is matched by Ralph Dietrich’s editing, which makes extensive use of the so-called swish cut: the transition from one scene to another is effected by means of what seems like a pan shot so rapid that the images blur; when they unblur, we’re into the new scene. This creates a sort of subliminal illusion that everything’s been done in a single take, which adds considerably to the paciness of proceedings.

And the movie does pack a lot of action, dialogue and plot into its scant running time. It also finds room for quite a lot of humor, some risqué enough that, just a few years later, the imposition of the Hays Code would have prohibited it. For example, here are two of Dolores’s fellow showgirls chatting in the dressing room:

“What a sucker I was. I thought that sugar daddy of mine meant he was going to take me abroad for a trip to France.”

“Yeah, where’d you get that idea?”

“Because he told me someday he was going to show me the place where he was wounded in the war.”

Pitts and Gallagher perform a supposedly droll double act as radio broadcasters Gladys Fairweather and Graham McNally, whose commentaries on the ongoing trial are rather less witty than some of the rest of the dialogue.

There are some odd little indications that the movie was made in a hurry (for example, after Joe Garson jumps through a plate glass window, falls several feet and rolls over a couple of times, the cops haul him upright and we discover that, miraculously, his hat is still firmly in place), but the narrative devices, including the editing, render it a cut above most other fillers of its day.

There’s no DVD on Amazon.com, but Ellis’s novel is available: The Trial of Vivienne Ware